Habermas’ ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’

I wish to show the theoretical underpinnings of Habermas’ ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’. Namely, I want to highlight that Habermas’ work is underpinned with a binary position of religion versus the secular; of metaphysical claims against non-metaphysical ones. I want to show that the constraints of defining religion in secular terms presumes religious values to be speculative and therefore as less real than the materiality of other concepts. I want to show that Habermas implicitly suggests that religious reasoning and viewpoints are intrinsically and diametrically opposed to secular reasoning and it is only with the condition of institutional translation proviso that they are relevant in the legislative domain. This is based on a certain definition of religion and is neither based on a sociologically unified political formation nor on a singular religious logic (Mahmood 2009). This dichotomy of characterising religion as such is based on an a priori epistemological assumption of the nature of religion.

Maclure (cited in Mahmood 2009: 853) has shown that the concept of religion as

a private affair dates back to the eighteenth century and, as an example cites

Locke’s ‘A Letter on Toleration’ to illustrate that it is underpinned with an

empiricist epistemology that defines religion in such a way and regards the ‘state

as the sole legitimate adjudicator of worldly acts.’ Thus,


The boundaries of toleration . . . [come] to be civilly defined. . . by the

empirical determination of whether particular acts and practices are

demonstrably injurious to the safety and security of the state or the civil

interests of its citizens, with these latter defined in equally empirical terms

(ibid). Although the empiricist epistemology has now been overtaken by other broader

definitions of religion; it is precisely this definition of religion that ties it to claims

that religion is intrinsically about matters that are less real and therefore less

pressing and, as Mahmood (ibid) has shown by illustrating the example of

academic and non-academic writings on the Danish cartoon controversy, that it

continues to hold a grip in contemporary circles.


To Habermas’ credit, he does hold that ‘religions traditions have a special power

to articulate moral intuitions’ and thus constitute a serious vehicle for possible

truth-claims (Habermas 2006: 10). Nonetheless, the point I wish to highlight is

that although Habermas’ concept of postsecularism transcends the traditional

boundaries of defining religion and secularism as a hierarchical other, in that he

allows a supposed ‘equal footing’ for both religion and secular in the deliberative

domain, it is not transformative enough; it still maintains non-neutral

mechanisms in the legislative domain for negotiating between religion and the

secular and thus is based on epistemological layers built into the matrix of

normative conceptions of religion through commitment to a strict political

secularism (Mahmood 2009: 861). This is not, as Mahmood (ibid) points out, due

to an integral wrongdoing of secularism or postsecuralism itself but is a necessary

consequence of these epistemological layers. Thus,


Our ability to think outside this set of limitations necessarily

requires…labor that does not rest on its putative claims to moral orepistemological superiority but in its ability to recognize and parochialize

its own affective commitments that contribute to the problem in various

ways (ibid).


Moreover, as Maclure (cited in Thaler 2009: 262), has argued that we need to

‘loosen the grip of Neo-Kantianism’. By Neo-Kantianism is meant the

generalisible nature of public reason. Public reason, in other words, is defined as

what can be reasonably justified as a reasonable justification by all citizens. This,

according to Maclure, is a resort to utopianism that has its place in idealistic

accounts of political theory but has nothing to do with real politics. Both Rawls

and Habermas reject with some disagreement amongst themselves as to the

scope and authority of ‘comprehensive doctrines’, ‘but they reject it vehemently

when attempting to establish the limits of public reason itself’ (ibid). This again is

making a priori epistemological and ontological assumptions about the nature of

secular/public reason ‘given that peoples’ standpoints vis-à-vis constitutional

essentials and matters of basic justice regularly differ on the most basic level’



Similarly, implicitly lying among claims of maintaining the neutrality of public

reason are hierarchical power structures within society that are not only

overlooked but, public reason is maintained as being transcendently above such

power structures and even being antithetical to them (op. cit: 260). This claim

then, with the existence of these power structures, is not dissimilar to toleration

and a modus vivendi. Public/secular reasoning is not a neutral mechanism but is‘encoded with an entire set of cultural and epistemological presuppostions that

are not indifferent to how religion is practiced and experienced in different

traditions’ (Mahmood 2009: 859).


Moreover, another problematic feature of Habermas’ essay is that he has

distanced himself from Kant’s philosophy of religion. Thus, he insists that it is

not philosophy’s role to distinguish between right and wrong within religion;

claims of authentic interpretations are left for the religious institutes to decide for

themselves and ‘only the participants and their religious organizations can

resolve the question of whether a ‘modernized’ faith is still the ‘true’ faith’

(Habermas 2006: 19).


Underlying this is the assumption of the monolithic nature of religions and the

assumption that it merely consists of doctrinal principles. Religion is not merely

a finite number of doctrine and tenets of faith; it has within its institutions

hierarchical power structures. Conceiving religion as such fails to grant

marginalised voices within religious institutions an equal footing to claims of

religious representation. Consequently, an essentialised monolithic religious

definition does not for example, give feminist religious voices of dissent a

platform for claims of representing a particular faith (Baumeister 2011: 234).

Thus, to cite Baumeister’s example, given the nature of religious obligations and

commitments, faith groups often enjoy a certain privilege and exclusion from

discrimination laws against gender and sexual equality. ‘Yet, adjudicating such

claims inevitably involves the state in decisions that delineate the scope andcharacter of the religious realm and require an assessment of the extent to which

a proposed law impacts upon the core of religious practices’ (ibid).


However, notwithstanding Baumeister’s claims of adjudicating where clear cases

of discrimination exist, I wish to highlight that it is precisely this notion of secular

necessity versus religious threat that I want to question. Underlying such claims

are definitions of religion that see certain norms and standards as necessary to a

secular way of life and upholding and defending them against the religious threat

as essential to its way of life. Recognising the threat of religious extremism

involves certain normative values and judgments, as Saba Mahmood points out:


Descriptions of events deemed extremist or politically dangerous are not

only often reductive of the conditions they purport to describe but, more

importantly, are premised on normative conceptions of the subject, law,

and language that need to be urgently rethought if one is to get beyond the

current secular religious impasse. Any serious intellectual and political

discussion today must therefore critically rethink the epistemological and

ontological assumptions that undergird these norms and whose status is

more fraught in the academy than meets the eye in these polemical

accounts (Mahmood 2009: 838).


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